How Leaders Can Contain Staff Shortages and Push for Reform - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

October 28, 2021

How Leaders Can Contain Staff Shortages and Push for Reform

How Leaders Can Contain Staff Shortages and Push for Reform (thumbnail)
Credit: Marco Fileccia on Unsplash

K-12 education has been suffering from staffing shortages and teacher retention concerns for decades. Salaries are low, hours are long, and the long-term benefits of remaining in the profession like pensions or the potential for student loan forgiveness are beginning to pale in comparison to the short-term sacrifices education professionals have been expected to make throughout the pandemic. Our staff is exhausted and they have every right to be.

Districts across the country are facing broad staffing shortages and scrambling for sub-coverage, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Recent research by Microsoft found that 40 percent of the overall global workforce was thinking of leaving their job in 2021, moving us closer to a "Great Resignation."

Public education cannot compete; teachers make 18.7 percent less than comparable workers. Our current crisis, in fact, extends beyond just a teaching shortage and so should our interventions. As leaders, we have to focus on putting out the fires in our own districts while at the same time thinking about long-term fixes to how we approach staffing and the workday.  

Fire #1: Our staff is exhausted.

Many of our teachers stay on despite low pay because they love kids, but the pandemic has made that decision harder. The pandemic has exponentially increased the span of the teacher workday and has forced our teachers to sacrifice their own health and safety to keep learning going. Leadership is exhausted too.

We need to retain existing staff by rewarding their loyalty, including our classroom teachers. Districts need to consider the amount of prep and grading time teachers are allotted, and make every effort to provide every educator with professional time during the school day. This includes time for professional learning communities so that educators can collaborate with their peers. One prep per day is insufficient for a teacher to manage their workload. Moreover, if districts are asking their staff to cover classes, they need to couple that ask with a stipend. Not only does this approach guarantee a qualified teacher in the classroom for students, it rewards staff for helping out and acknowledges their sacrifice.

Fire #2: We have an essential worker shortage in our home districts.

School bus drivers make on average $16.80 per hour nationally, while commercial drivers make $26 per hour. When you couple this with the risks associated with driving a busload of unvaccinated children around town, it’s clear why recruitment for bus drivers is falling flat. The situation has gotten so bad in some areas that districts are pulling in the National Guard to get children to school. While this is a creative government solution, it is by all means alarming.

School districts should consider using emergency relief funds to offer sign-on bonuses to new hires. For many of our essential workers, bus drivers and substitute teachers especially, not enough time is allotted for breaks. We need to work those in. Districts should consider breaking up the workday for bus drivers or offering overtime pay for drivers able to work both morning and afternoon bus shifts.

Fire #3: We have a daily and long-term substitute shortage.

We’ve lost our sub-pool to the pandemic. If you’ve been in a school district in the past few years, you may have noticed that our daily subs are often retired teachers or new graduates trying to make their way into the local district applicant pool. The work is unpredictable. There’s not a consistent number of teachers out every day so there’s not a guarantee of daily pay, and what you are asked to do each day changes based on sub-plans provided and the overall assignment. Substitutes are paid a daily rate ranging from $90-$110 per day in most places (at least near me), which does not amount to much more than the minimum wage after taxes.

We need to think differently about our treatment of substitutes. Districts should consider hiring long-term building substitutes to guarantee consistent employment. For most districts, the daily substitute rate increases when a substitute is on the same job for more than 90 days. Districts should consider increasing their sub-rate to the long-term rate to compete with neighboring districts. Getting inventive with staff coverage can only go so far without the funding to support it; we need to increase substitute pay and provide our substitutes with steady, predictable employment.

Fire #4: Recognize that you’re not controlling the fire and call for backup.

You fund what you value. A quick look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics confirms the average hourly wage for K-12 educators is just under $27 per hour. Further, the rate of increase in pay for obtaining your master’s in education is disproportionate to other professions. Many teachers are required to accrue additional debt in order to maintain their licensure. Recent discussions on reforming public service loan forgiveness make clear that these reforms will not be enough to alleviate the teaching shortage. We need to instead consider a five-year commitment for our teachers’ post-graduation and a guarantee that their debt will be forgiven.

Pretending that quick fixes implemented now will solve the staff shortage crisis is disingenuous. We will not be able to recruit new hires to the education profession by simply putting out fires; we need interventions that value education as a critical public service.

As leaders, we need to demand increases in funding to supplement district budgets and support salary increases for education professionals across the country. Our students deserve equitable access to great teaching and we cannot get there without improving salaries and working conditions.

Pretending that quick fixes to shortages now will solve the staff shortage crisis is disingenuous.

author avatar

Stephanie Burroughs

We’ve been putting out fires for almost two years and the moment that we’re waiting for, when everything corrects itself and education is “back to normal,” isn’t coming. We have immediate needs, we need to hire people and at this point sign-on bonuses, increased pay, and adjusting the workday are our options. We also have to take care of those we currently employ and make sure they feel valued. Using emergency funding will find us a way out, but disrupting funding will find us a way forward.

Want to save this article for later?